Cr-48 Chromebook long-term review

chromebook

This is a free beta machine that is two years old that you can’t buy.

So why am I reviewing it? I want to talk about how well this Chromebook has aged and whether or not it has delivered on Google’s promises to get continually better through free automatic updates to ChromeOS, the operating system that powers Chromebooks.

The Cr-48 is still the device it was when I first received it. It’s slow, can’t play HD video, the trackpad isn’t very good and it’s a plain black box. The first thing you need to know about the Cr-48 and ChromeOS is that I’m still using this device two years later. It still has a place in my life, and it is getting better and more usable with each passing OS update.

Most devices get slower over time. Google has delivered on its promise to make ChromeOS faster, more stable, usable and feature rich over time. It’s a better device in 2013 than it was when I received it in late 2010.

It has limitations, and those limitations have to be lived within. And the primary limitations are within the OS itself — ChromeOS — that only runs websites and Web apps.

Modern Chromebooks are faster, can handle more Web pages at once and can do video much better, addressing many of the issues that arose with the Cr-48. Some really fancy Web pages can be a lot for the Cr-48. But it does some things really well.

Even computers that boot up lightning fast when you first buy them get slow after a few years. This device still boots up in about 10 seconds. I can boot up the Chromebook, login and be ready to use the machine faster than I can get my Core i3 Windows 7 machine to get to the login screen.

The trackpad, which was atrocious at first, has improved, although it is still wonky and nowhere near MacBook Pro quality. Two-finger scrolling in particular is still an issue and at times is virtually unusable. I hope Google has learned to make better trackpads for its premium Chromebook Pixel offering. I would not pay more than $1,000 for a laptop that didn’t have a great trackpad, and virtually everything but MacBooks have terrible trackpads.

But the keyboard is really good, and I love the soft feel of the keys and the quietness of the whole thing. It is one of the best laptop keyboards that I have ever used.

The Cr-48 in many ways is a writers dream. By design, and because of its underpowered hardware, it’s difficult to get distracted on on this machine. This device simply won’t allow you to get distracted with too many apps at once. You’ll find yourself operating in one window with very few other websites running.

This machine doesn’t allow you to go crazy with multiple windows, monitors, widgets and blinking this and thats all over the place. For a lot of computing tasks and jobs today, you need those multiple windows and monitors and this and that. But for writing, being able to focus on a single screen and app is really important.

The only thing that keeps ChromeOS from being a complete dream for writers is that there aren’t any great cloud-based writing apps along the lines of Byword or Scrivener. I’m writing this in Google Docs, and while it is great for collaboration and as a cloud replacement for much of what Word does, it’s not an incredible environment for putting words down like Byword and some of the other modern OS X writing apps are. Byword is just such a beautiful writing environment, and when combined with a Das Keyboard or another great writing machine, writing becomes addictive.

I’m writing this review in Google Docs offline mode. Yes, Google Docs works just fine offline for the most part, especially for writing. And yes, you are quite limited in offline mode with this device, but it’s not a paper weight without the Internet. If you need to work on a document or a presentation or do some reading that you loaded up this device will be fine without an Internet connection.

If you’re a writer, this machine can work for you. You’ll be able to do research, write and publish to the Web. The biggest downsides to this machine and OS are that there are limited writing options available and the best writing environments are offline apps for OS X. Certain writing fields require specific apps and none of those are available in the cloud.

Save those wrists

ChromeOS has become the best consumer laptop OS for saving people’s wrists. Heavy reliance on mice and trackpads can cause RSI. ChromeOS lets you switch between tabs (essentially apps in this OS) by using the keyboard. ChromeOS also lets you launch apps, bookmarks and search the Internet by clicking the search key. Tap one button and you can launch just about anything that ChromeOS can do.

This is efficient, fast and helps save my wrists. I’m a big fan of how this works. This was not originally how this key worked, however, and it shows how ChromeOS is improving — for free — as an OS for Chromebook owners.

Originally the search key was a way to search the Internet, but along the way Google released that people do a lot more with their computers than search. Sometimes we know what we want, we just want to be able to quickly launch it. This functions very similar to Alfred on OS X, but Alfred is a utility that most OS X users don’t know about, and it requires multiple keys to launch.

I cannot think of another graphic user interface-based OS that is built with the ability to be used this well without a mouse or trackpad. There are certainly pluses to pointing devices, but many people overuse these devices and don’t use the keyboard nearly enough, creating aches and pains in their arms, wrists and hands.

My only major complaint with how ChromeOS functions in this regard is that it can’t search through my documents like Alfred and other OS X utilities can. On OS X, I can search for episode 60 to find our show notes for our 60th episode but can’t do that with ChromeOS, despite being logged into Google Docs. I should be able to tap the search key and at least be able to search through my Google Docs files; instead I have to tap the search key, launch Google Docs, click in the search bar in Google Docs and then search for what I’m looking for.

ChromeOS needs the ability to tie in Google Docs and other web apps to its search capabilities. Being able to search through your files is a pretty common paradigm, but ChromeOS makes you search through each individual Web app separately, which can be a massive time suck and usability nightmare if you don’t know which Web app your file is in. If you use several different Web apps for writing and note taking — Google Docs, Simplenote, Evernote, etc. — good look finding that file you need in a reasonable amount of time.

So, I love the fact that I can launch Web apps, bookmarks and Google searches by clicking one button, but I don’t like the fact that I can’t use this — or anything — to search my files. OS X with its built in Spotlight search functionality and several utilities such as Alfred is lightyears beyond this in terms of being able to search your files, which is ironic since Google is the king of search.

Living in Google’s world
Want to get the most out of ChromeOS and a Chromebook? Make heavy use of Google Docs, Gmail and other Google services. If your email isn’t with Gmail and you don’t really like Google Docs, I don’t see this as making a lot of sense for you. ChromeOS is built for Google users, and Google users will be in for a treat.

Your Google password unlocks a Chromebook and signs you into all Google services. It’s pretty glorious. But you don’t use those services, you don’t get those benefits and will spend time signing into other services constantly, and won’t have the pleasure of having these services stored as “apps” in the bar at the bottom of the OS.

Web apps available through the Chrome store can be stored like Windows apps in the bottom taskbar. If a Web app isn’t in that store, it can’t be stored there, giving you less ways to launch apps and switch between them.

ChromeOS is fine for Web surfers and email users, and I suppose you could justify getting a Chromebook for those tasks even if you don’t use Google, but ChromeOS is really made for people who like Google services.

What can’t ChromeOS do well?

ChromeOS is a good OS for a lot of tasks and users, but there are certain tasks it really struggles with, namely creative arts tasks. There isn’t an online image editing and graphic design program that can touch Photoshop or even all of those $15-50 OS X apps that are built for users who don’t use Photoshop (I use $14.99 Pixelmator most of the time for graphic work and Adobe Lightroom for photo editing and storage). If you need to do design work, ChromeOS cannot be your main machine.

Video editing, audio editing and similar tasks are out. And we’re talking about low-end editing here. Forget high-end editing of documentaries, TV shows and feature films. People do, however, use ChromeOS for development, particularly over SSH.

For programmers who don’t do a lot of design work, ChromeOS can work well, but it does require a server to connect to, which adds to development costs. Developing on ChromeOS is like developing on a terminal connected to a mainframe. If you can do that kind of programming, ChromeOS may be a really cheap development box for you.

I do a lot of design, user interface and user experience work. I need graphic design and prototyping programs.  I can’t do my programming work on ChromeOS (I mostly use my MacBook Pro for that), but many developers are able to.

Verdict

ChromeOS is really built for people who  their lives in the cloud, and this mostly means writing, reading, email, calendaring, project management, surfing the Web and connecting to servers. If that’s your life, ChromeOS is a pretty good option.

Actually, probably a really good option. A good Chromebook can be had for $249. We’re talking about a secure and stable machine that is constantly improving. You can’t get a Windows or OS X laptop for that price.

Price always enters in the conversation with Chromebooks. If you can afford it, a MacBook Pro running Chrome is a much better option, if you need the power. That machine runs Chrome just fine, which is essentially what ChromeOS is. It can also run lots of apps, games, utilities and even other OSes.

But if you want to not spend a lot of money on a computer or don’t need a powerful computer, ChromeOS is probably the best low-cost OS available. Cheap Windows laptops usually feel cheap and work cheaply. People go through them like they are disposable, and I rarely see them last more than a few years.

Two years later, and I still find myself using this Chromebook, which is much worse than most of the other Chromebooks released. It is improving all the time and has become more usable. A lot of cheap laptops are almost unusable after 2-3 years.

My experience with ChromeOS and a Chromebook is that you may get five years of good service out of a $250 machine. Maybe more.

For students, children, older adults, companies and people looking for a secondary machine, this is a really good deal. For $50 a year (if you look at the cost of the ChromeBook over its lifetime), you can get a machine that surfs the Web well, does email, can watch online video (Netflix and other services work as well) and is more stable and secure than most operating systems.

If I’m Google and its partners, I’d think about leasing these machines out. Google already does this in the education and business markets, but I could see a market for families looking to get a computing device for $50 a year. When the lease is up, families would re-up and get a new machine, all the while ChromeOS updates make their leased machines more usable and powerful.

If you’re not a power user and you spend your days in a Web browser, ChromeOS might just be the laptop operating system for you. But before you buy, you should look at the apps and services you are currently using and make sure they work on ChromeOS. Skype doesn’t work on ChromeOS, and that’s a deal breaker for a lot of people.

ChromeOS isn’t Windows or OS X. It’s a thin client that connects to the world’s biggest server — The Internet. It’s the cheapest, most secure, most stable way of connecting to that server. For many of you, that’s all you’ll need in a computer. For others, that’s all you’ll need in a secondary computer.

The Cr-48 isn’t a great computing device by any stretch of the imagination and it has thankfully been surpassed by its successors, but it serves a purpose in my life. And I think ChromeOS could serve a purpose in many of your lives.